Culinary Herbs Defined
WHAT IS A CULINARY HERB?
By SCMG by Stephanie Wrightson
Among both home gardeners and professional horticulturists, there is wide disagreement as to what constitutes an herb. One person’s shrub or tree may be another person’s culinary herb. And, in Sonoma County’s Mediterranean climate, a number of flowering culinary herbs are used as ornamentals and havens for beneficial insects in the landscape. A number of aromatic culinary herbs are deer-resistant, which is evident by the number of rosemary hedges planted here.
The United States Arboretum states that, “Herbs, in the culinary sense, are leaves of plants that can be used either fresh or dried to season food. In the botanical sense, an herb is any plant that does not have woody perennial stems like a tree or shrub.” Also, culinary herbs are distinguished from vegetables in that they are used in small amounts and provide flavor, rather than substance, to food.
Spices are flavorings, often of tropical origin, that are dried. Some spices may come from the bark of trees (e.g., cinnamon) or from the underground rhizome of a plant (e.g., ginger). Where spices come from plant fruits or other plant parts that can be grown in Sonoma County, they may be included in our herb information (for example, cilantro is the leafy portion and coriander is the seed of the same plant, Coriandrum sativum).
Based on these definitions, a plant such as fennel, Foeniculum officinale, may be viewed as a vegetable for its bulb-like leaves, as an herb for its fronds, as a spice for its seeds, or as an ornamental for its lacy foliage and graceful movement in a breezy landscape.
Tips for harvesting and cooking with herbs:
- Know what parts of the herb are edible. Just because the leaves are edible does not automatically mean that the flower heads and other plant parts are edible. Some flowers are poisonous. If you are serving edible flowers, make sure that they have been handled in a food-safe manner without pesticides – as you did with your culinary herbs.
- For best flavor and color, harvest before the herb bolts (i.e., flowers).
- Cut herbs in the early morning when moisture and fragrance are at their peak, and try to harvest only what you will use that day.
- When cooking with fresh herbs, use three times the amount when the recipe calls for dried herbs.